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If I knew ahead of time that I was about to be stranded on a deserted island and was given the (equally improbable) opportunity to take just one book along with me, it would have to be the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged. Its 2,508 pages are packed with stuff: charts illustrating Morse Code, Volcanoes of the World, and Basic Knots and Hitches (potentially lifesaving stuff on an uncharted desert isle); French, Spanish, German, and Italian dictionaries; a 28-page atlas; and helpful tips on calculating the air distance from Keflavik to Caracas, properly addressing a Chargé d'Affaires, avoiding sexism in daily conversation, understanding chess, and reading a blueprint, and spelling, pronouncing, etymologizing, and in general understanding several hundred thousand words, oblique and otherwise. For instance: look up "lapis," get yourself redirected to "lapis lazuli," and find out that the "lazuli" part shares French, Arabic, and Persian bloodlines with the word "azure" -- defined, finally, as the particular blue color of a clear and cloudless sky.
The definition seems to fit our year-2000-model Embarcadero (if you don't mind a waterfront more or less bereft of any actual boats, that is). The hated freeway has been absent for nearly a decade, leaving unencumbered vistas behind. There's this cool new ballpark you may have read about down near China Basin, with its very own ferry slip. A new streetcar line allows you to trundle up and down the waterfront in gorgeously restored vintage-1928 Milanese jitneys. Even the implausible palm trees add a hint of Pacific Rim foliage. And in addition to thriving restaurants both old (Red's Java House) and new (Waterfront), this recently decrepit stretch of real estate boasts a dazzling three-month-old eatery as jewellike as its name: Lapis.
In the restaurant's case, the name probably has more to do with the deep color of the inlet from which the kitchen draws its inspiration, the Mediterranean Sea. One more Mediterranean-fusion restaurant would appear to be about 734 too many, but instead of concentrating on the region's usual suspects -- Spain, Italy, and Provence -- chef Thomas Ricci (of Elan Vital fame) takes in the area's entire width and breadth, acknowledging the fact that the sea washes up on Asia and Africa too, and that all of these sea-fed places share certain culinary characteristics that make triple-continental fusion not only tasty, but climatologically logical. There are hints of Athens, Beirut, Algiers, and Istanbul in a menu fragrant with fennel, eggplant, tahini, olives, pomegranate, garlic, garbanzos, and mint; the dishes speak of life -- zest, languor, and earthly pleasures, with enough California-cuisine fireworks to keep things feasibly modern.
A visual association is offered up as well, right out Lapis' plate-glass windows: our own particular inlet lapping up against the restaurant's superstructure. The water here isn't as lapislike (or unfrigid) as the stuff found 135 longitudinal degrees to the east, and instead of bustling longshoremen loading and unloading cargo, the view is accented by lemon drop-sodden dot-commers ensconced at the window seats. Their sky had just developed some pretty hefty cumulonimbi when we dropped in for a bite to eat, and we speculated on the effect the recent stock market dive might have on us personally: Cheaper rents? Fewer cell phones? Fewer SUVs? We toasted our own cloudless horizon, ordered several courses of food, and appreciated our immediate surroundings.
Lapis (the color) is a running motif in the interior design of Lapis (the restaurant) -- it shows up on the menus, in the waitstaff's Mao suit-like uniforms, and throughout the restaurant's color scheme, accented here and there with bronzes, rich draperies, and rough timbers. The ceilings and windows soar, allowing in plenty of light and oxygen, rustic-modern art adorns the walls, thickly embroidered cushions and banquettes face out toward the bay, and a dramatically backlit bar gleams with glassware and vertical proto-deco. It's a properly eclectic setting for food that encompasses the myriad cultures of both the Mediterranean and its local progeny: lemon-chicken soup with spinach dumplings and poached quail eggs ($8), herb salad with goat-cheese fritters and pomegranate vinaigrette ($8), crab cake with Moroccan carrot salad and cilantro purée ($13), coriander-crusted chicken with Egyptian rice and manchego ($18), braised lamb shank with mint pesto and goat cheese-eggplant crisps ($21), banana Tatin with spiced walnuts ($7).
We began by selecting one of the establishment's elaborately adorned flatbreads, a difficult choice to make: duck confit with taleggio ($9)? Eggplant caviar with kalamata olives, zucchini, and two kinds of cheese ($8)? We settled on a variety that combined tender red bliss potatoes with deep green spinach, soft, supple cloves of roasted garlic, and my favorite blue cheese on Earth, cambazola ($8) -- what's not to love? Meanwhile, a selection of Mediterranean dipping sauces ($8) is served with a variety of wonderfully pungent olives and pita bread baked in the establishment's wood-fired oven: a thick, creamy hummus rich with sesame; a cool, fresh dill raita studded with cucumber; and a good, chunky baba ghanouj. And the seared diver scallops ($14) are not only sweet, smoky, and moist, they're served with the contrasting accents of a pungent black-olive tapenade, a crisp tomato confit, and al dente ravioli filled with fresh fennel.
Like all of the platters presented here, the beef tenderloin ($28) is a wonder to behold. The precisely grilled beef is surrounded by a geometric stack of asparagus, a triangle of crusty polenta, and a scatter of braised cipollini onions, with the fragrance of sherry discernible here and there. The substance is equally enticing: The steak is fork-tender, the polenta's semolina raises it above the ordinary, and the picturesquely (and purposely) charred asparagus adds a nice smoky flavor to the whole. The Jerusalem artichokes wrapped in phyllo ($16) are as complex in flavor as a North African bazaar: The starring rootstocks are spiced and cooked until tender, enclosed in flaky pastry like a savory baklava, and served with an earthy red-tomato jam, a smoky purée of eggplant, and creamy ricotta cheese. And the sliced duck breast ($26), tender if a bit bland, is glazed with pomegranate-infused molasses, accented with a sweet-smoky relish of medjool dates, and decorated with a tiny bouquet of fresh, spiky mustard greens and rich duck confit.
Pastry chef Ellen Sternau (Aqua) has devised a dessert menu rich with possibilities. The Chocolate Melt-Away ($8) is as dazzling as the tenderloin: Perimeter scoops of pistachio ice cream spired with isosceles triangles of bittersweet chocolate guard an interior chocolate ganache that's crisp on the outside and all gooey chocolate lava within. The barely sweetened orange cake ($8) gets its sucrose from walnuts soaked in maple syrup and beautifully shaped ovals of orange-blackberry ice cream teetering atop -- a stellar combination. And the simplistically named tea and cookies ($7) is in reality a tall cool milkshake flavored with the tea of your choice (we chose chamomile: killer good) and served with half a dozen tiny cookies of great individuality (the dense, delicious macaroon was my favorite).
The wine list, like the menu, embraces both California and the Mediterranean, with a comprehensive and continually evolving selection of vintages from France, Italy, Spain, and Sonoma that includes 19 wines by the glass ($5 to $12). Service is precise: The waitstaff explains every facet of the strikingly complex platter placed before you with the professional facility of tour bus guides wheeling past the Aegean. And the color scheme is, of course, worthwhile.
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